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Bill Self stood in a hallway near the luxury boxes on the event level of UBS Arena late Friday night when a reporter asked about coaching Kansas guard Remy Martin.
Self smiled immediately. This answer was going to be complicated.
“I love him. I love him. To me, he’s a personality. He’s a handful,” Self said. “He doesn’t see the game the same way I see it a good portion of the time. But I don’t think that’s all bad either.”
Martin wasn’t the biggest story in eighth-ranked KU’s 95-75 victory over St. John’s. Ochai Agbaji took over the first half, while Christian Braun was dominant late on his way to a career-high 31 points.
Yet, Martin impacted the game in his own way — and a different one than he attempted to earlier this season.
He was content to mostly find others. He was responsible for two of KU’s most significant defensive stops, then took pride in that.
His final line of 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting with five assists (with five turnovers — more on that in a second) will not win him Big 12 player of the year, as was predicted by league coaches in the preseason.
Still, it has the potential to win KU a whole lot of games, which Martin seems to have embraced even as his ball-dominant role decreases.
“Remy did some good things tonight,” Self said. “He did some poor things, but he responded very well the last 10 minutes.”
Self is talking most about Martin’s competitiveness, saying he can sense that Martin likes when the game is close late.
While the smaller Martin has been bully-balled some in recent games, his best stretch Friday came just after getting chewed some by Self for his defense.
After a defensive switch late in the second half, Martin played to his quickness and anticipated a pass for a steal and layup. After scrambling to get back, he walled up and was ready when Tareq Coburn gave him an extra nudge, flying backward to pick up an offensive foul call before screaming his satisfaction toward the rafters.
These types of moments have led to Self conceding a bit when it comes to his tough coaching love. Because as much as Self would love the transfer point guard to only play the way he wants, he’s come to realize that isn’t going to be feasible, especially with Martin’s KU career already about one-fourth of the way through.
“I think he brings some things out in me that maybe I could adjust a little bit to,” Self said. “Because I’m not going to control him. But I can maybe corral him a little bit. And I think he’s working towards that.”
It’s a significant concession from Self, who doesn’t like to cede control or give the appearance of any doubt as to who’s actually running the show with his program.
Part of this, though, could be because he sees a legitimate effort in Martin to mold his ways to KU as well.
It was evident in Martin’s first KU games that he equated personal success with shooting and scoring. For example, in the Jayhawks’ lone exhibition game against Emporia State, Martin too often forced off-the-bounce jumpers on a team and offense that doesn’t need him to take that kind of role.
Since then, Martin has mostly adapted. He took seven shots against St. John’s, and had only six the previous game against Iona. He’s looking for cutting teammates and has been one of the biggest reasons the Jayhawks’ offense is humming along at an efficiency level that might be the best in the nation by year’s end.
However, those “always-keep-the-ball-in-my-hands” habits remain tough to break at times. The first possession of the second half showed this, as a Self play resulted in St. John’s miscommunicating a switch, which left Martin with no one defending him at the top of the three-point line.
Martin had the world available to him. Shoot the open three? Good choice. Immediately drive against a late closeout by a St. John’s big man? Another option. Heck, swinging the ball to his teammate Agbaji likely would’ve kept KU’s offensive advantage while giving the Jayhawks a chance at a deep post touch from big man David McCormack.
This time, though, Martin was indecisive. He hesitated, eventually letting the defense recover before trying an ill-fated bounce pass to Braun.
Self has in the past referred to this as Martin getting too cute. The coach is quickly coming to see, though, that an attempt to take away Martin’s flair would be asking to take a piece of the player himself.
So Self’s new goal appears to be aiming for co-existence from Martin rather than subservience. And while Martin’s five turnovers against St. John’s were too many, this hasn’t been a consistent issue, as he’d combined for two giveaways in his four previous games before that.
If we’re honest, Self has loved his past with molding point guards over long KU careers. The trajectories of Frank Mason and Devonté Graham not only made for great stories, but they also allowed developed Self’s basketball worldview through osmosis over multiple seasons of practice time.
Martin is not going to be that. It’s why Self’s comments on him always seemed to be filled with the word “but” while usually keeping a positive tone.
“I think the experience (with Martin) will work out fine,” Self said. “But I love coaching him. But he is different than guys that I’ve usually had for four years.”
Perhaps the best compliment Self gave about Martin was a simple one. In this new KU setup, he said the point guard was gaining more comfort.
“He’s finding his way,” Self said.
The same can be said, at this moment, about KU’s head coach, who’s navigating his own unfamiliar scenario.
With a mind more open, it should be noted, than it’s been in the past.